Columnists > Voices

Carver's affirmations

The great scientist saw himself as God's instrument

Issue: "America's best & worst," Feb. 1, 2003

Peanut Butter, Peanut Brittle, Peanut Sausage, Peanut Punch, Peanut Powder, Peanut Wafers, Peanut Oil, Peanut Chili, Peanut Cream, Peanut Malt, Peanut Coke, Peanut Cutlet, Peanut Flour, Peanut Cake, Peanut Wine, Peanut Loaf, Peanut Relish ...

Like Bubba the shrimper in Forrest Gump, George Washington Carver is remembered today, if at all, largely for his favoring of one food. Carver gained a national reputation in 1921 when he delighted the House Ways and Means Committee with a Washington show-and-tell. In the committee's ornate chamber, pulling out products he had developed like peanut cereal, chocolate-covered peanuts, peanut milk, and peanut syrup, Carver let slide a racial jibe from Rep. John Tilson of Connecticut: "Do you want a watermelon to go along with that?"

With the publicity that began that day, Carver became probably the most famous African-American of the 1920s and 1930s. Born a slave in 1860, his scientific investigations led him to make significant contributions to mycology (the study of fungi) and to improved production of pigments, paints, and stains. As a professor at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama for over four decades, he challenged thousands of black students to rise above racial prejudice and not just complain about it.

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He's not on the A-list, though, for celebrations of Black History Month over the next four weeks. Among others prominent in the 1920s, W.E.B. DuBois is remembered for his left-wing politics, and artists of the Harlem Renaissance for their cultural radicalism. To those who demand rapid societal change, Carver's creativity in making the growing of peanuts and other crops economical and popular seems like small sweet potatoes (another of his high-nutrition, low-cost recommendations).

Last month's 60th anniversary of Carver's death (Jan. 5, 1943) engendered no articles about him in the nation's middling or large daily newspapers, except for one in the Topeka Capital Journal. But I've thought about Carver these last several weeks while eating my favorite lunch, peanut butter and rice cakes, and doing some daily Bible reading. The great researcher had similar lunches: He identified 85 uses for pecans, 118 for sweet potatoes, and 265 for peanuts, but 365 for the Bible.

Carver's daily Bible reading reinforced his belief that God inspired him to come up with creative ideas. "I didn't make these discoveries," he told interviewers. "God has only worked through me to reveal to His children some of His wonderful providence." Under a headline, "Men of Science Never Talk That Way," The New York Times lambasted him in 1924 for his "complete lack of scientific spirit" in saying that religious belief was essential to his work.

For Carver, biblical faith made the difference in his calling and in life itself. At the George Washington Carver National Monument near Joplin, Mo., a visitor's center plaque quotes Carver recalling that as a child, "My body was very feeble and it was a constant warfare between life and death to see who would gain the mastery.... I trusted to God and pressed on."

Carver would be a prime subject for abortion today: unknown father, poor and ignorant mother. Orphaned in Missouri as an infant, he was reared by a white couple, Moses and Susan Carver, and grew up on a farm where he became known as "the Plant Doctor" for his knowledge of how to make things grow faster and better. Today, it's pleasant to walk around the Carver National Monument, which contains Moses Carver's house, the persimmon grove and walnut trees he planted, and the spring where George collected water for household use.

It wasn't always pleasant for Carver as he sought to pursue an education. He applied by mail to Highland College, a small Presbyterian institution north of Kansas City, and gained acceptance. When he arrived the college president said, "You didn't tell me you were a Negro. Highland College does not take Negroes." At age 30 he was finally able to enroll at Simpson College, a Methodist school, and later move on to become the first black graduate student at Iowa State.

As John Perry shows in Unshakable Faith, a biography of Carver and his fellow Tuskegee giant, Booker T. Washington, prejudice dogged both men, but they fought it by demonstrating not just equality but superiority. Carver's Iowa State professors described him as "the ablest student we have here," and the freshmen he taught in an introductory biology course began calling him "Dr. Carver" out of respect, even though he had yet to earn a master's degree.

Many black students today yearn for such honoring. The prejudice that Carver faced was terribly wrong. A counter-bias today tells some bright students that they don't have to work to their utmost to get ahead, and leaves many not knowing what they have earned and what has merely been given them. That's also wrong.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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